When you go camping you usually go with the intention of enjoying nature. It is about getting away from all the noise and chaos of the modern world. Unfortunately, if you or some else at the campsite brought a loud generator the noise can disrupt all of that. Generators are great because they allow you to continue enjoying all the creature comforts of home while in the great outdoors but they can also sound louder than a jet engine.
This scares off all the wildlife and massively interferes with the tranquility of nature. To counteract this disruption you should plan ahead. Whether you or someone else is the source of all the noise there are a few innovative ideas you can use to make a generator quiet for camping. That way you can still bask in the luxury of portable power while also listening to the birds singing.
Why are generators so noisy?
Most conventional portable generators generate electricity through an internal combustion engine that runs on fuel like diesel. This means that as you run the generator there are little explosions going off inside of it which generate the power you are using. This combustion alone can be quite noisy but even if that is somewhat insulated the exhaust creates a channel for noise. Fumes from the combustion have to be vented so generators are fitted with an exhaust port. This port serves as a channel for all the noise from the internal engine.
Sometimes it might seem like these small portable engines are louder than larger engines like those in a car. Generally, that’s because they are, relative to their size. Both types of engines rely on combustion, but for portable generators, the engines are encased in thin air-cooled materials that don’t insulate sound very well. Vehicle engines, on the other hand, are encased in steel and liquid-cooled.
There are other things that contribute to the loud noise of the generator too. As a corollary of combustion, a generator that produces more power will often be noisier. More internal combustion equals more power but it also equals more noise. This is especially true in cheaper models. With portable generators the more you pay the quieter they can be, even at higher energy outputs. Generators that make less noise are more expensive because of that but the noise reduction is usually worth it.
The noise from generators is loud enough as it is but depending on where and how you place the generator the noise can be amplified. Obviously, the closer the generator is to you the louder it will be but there are other factors to consider. If the generator is on a shallow or shaky surface the vibrations from that can amplify the noise. Also, if you place the generator near walls or even the side of an RV the sound can bounce off of those things and be amplified as well. More open spaces make for quieter sounding generators.
Keep in mind that the sound level of a generator is measured in decibels (dB). Portable generators usually fall between 60-90 dB but some can go over 100 decibels. For comparison, a typical dishwasher or vacuum cleaner makes about 60-70 dB of noise. That noise is bearable in small bursts but over time it can easily drive someone crazy. For camping, that level of noise is more than sufficient to scare off wildlife, violate noise restrictions, and keep you awake at night.
Making a generator quiet for camping
There are three major approaches for quieting a generator for your camping trip. The simplest and most direct is to just buy a quieter generator, although these can be expensive. The other options involve adding an enclosure/surface to help reduce the noise and/or modifying the exhaust to reduce the noise there. We’ll go over the basics for each of these to get you started.
Making a quiet enclosure generator box
From the simplest to the most complex enclosure options the key idea is to have something that absorbs the sound of the generator or deflects it into the ground or somewhere else away from listening ears. For the most part, you can adhere to a general rule that soft and porous materials, like cloth, will absorb sound better than hard and dense materials, like metals. If you keep this in mind then you can look through things you might already have around the house to make a quiet enclosure for your generator.
The quickest and simplest thing you can do is take some scrap pieces of plywood, or even better, drywall, and lean them over the generator like a tee-pee. Plywood and drywall both have some sound absorbing qualities but the main point of this design is to deflect sound waves from the generator into the ground. At best this might reduce the noise of the generator by about 10 dB. For camping, these sound deflectors still might not be enough.
The next best option is to build a more robust soundproofing enclosure. This would be built as a box that goes over the top of your generator or that your generator sits inside and covers it completely. You would still need to leave a space or small hole for electrical cords and exhaust to come out from the generator. The inside of the box is lined with sound-absorbing materials, some DIY instructions recommend using medium density fiberboard and mass loaded vinyl. You can buy proper sound-absorbing panels and use those but to save money you can use material from foam board, yoga mats, and/or cushions to create a similar effect. The interior of the enclosure should have at least an inch of soft porous material all around it to help absorb sound.
Two parts of the enclosure that are often overlooked when being built are the seams of the box and the base that the generator sits on. Attending to those two elements while also having a properly constructed sound-absorbing enclosure will go a long way in reducing the noise of your generator. For the seams of the box, you should use caulking to help seal them and then add strips of cloth along the interior to help with sound absorption.
For the base, you can try a couple of different things. You can try sitting the generator on top of a thick foam mat which will help absorb some of the sounds. Alternatively, you can set the generator on the ground and then dig a small trench around the edge of it that the enclosure sits down into. Both methods will help create a mostly sealed sound-absorbing environment. Some folks build a base into their box, sit the generator down inside and then close a lid over the top. If building a quiet enclosure isn’t up your alley and you don’t mind spending a little money then there are several commercial options available too. Zombie Box is a brand that offers options for this.
The exhausting exhaust
The exhaust is a source of noise for generators and, depending on how you build the enclosure, it can still be noisy with the generator boxed up. There are a few creative solutions for this though. Before diving into those it is worth addressing a solution that has been floating around the internet for some time. There are articles stating that you can use an automobile muffler on your generator’s exhaust to dampen the sound. Does this work? Yes and no.
Among those who have tried it, the reviews are mixed and it often seems to come down to a matter of how well the muffler is attached to the generator and how well the other sounds are managed. Most of the noise of a generator will come from the engine and moving parts so this makes it hard to know how much is coming from the exhaust. Before trying any solutions you can do a simple test. Take note: be careful when you do this!
First, you need to put on gloves so you don’t burn yourself. If you try this without gloves don’t say you weren’t warned. Next, grab a thick cloth and briefly hold it over the generator’s exhaust while the generator is running. Do you hear any difference in the sound? If there is a noticeable difference then quieting the exhaust is worth it. If not then your best solution is to build a quiet enclosure.
You can try using the automobile muffler idea if you like. Just make sure there is a very tight fit between the muffler and the generator’s exhaust. Some have gone so far as to weld the two together. It’s your call. Beyond that, you should consider having your generator serviced by a small engine mechanic. Sometimes mechanical issues and old in-built mufflers are a large part of the reason a generator is so noisy. A simple tune-up and replacing the generator’s muffler might help.
Similarly, if you don’t mind spending the money there are commercially available silencers that can attach to your generator’s exhaust to quiet them down a bit. Alternatively, there are two easy modifications you can do yourself that should make a big difference in the noise the generator makes. The first one is changing the position of the exhaust pipe. Most exhaust pipes are pointed outwards which directs the sound outwards as well. Instead, try redirecting the pipe up or down to change where the sound is directed. If you point it up, make sure the exhaust is somehow covered in case it rains. You don’t want rainwater falling straight down the pipe.
Water can work to your advantage though. Some folks have described connecting a hosepipe to their generator’s exhaust and dipping the loose end of the hose in a shallow bucket of water. This works to dampen the sound coming out while still allowing the exhaust to leave the system. Overall you can try combining any of these methods with a quiet enclosure to reduce the overall noise of the system.
Buy quiet if you can
The only thing better than building or buying equipment to make your generator quieter is buying a generator that is quiet to begin with. This is easier said than done though. Factors like price and power need complicate things quickly. Also, there isn’t just one kind of generator available on the market either. It can become a complicated affair quite quickly.
For camping purposes, you can focus on two types of generators, portable generators, and inverter generators. They both work differently and are best suited for different purposes. A traditional portable generator is best suited for powering more heavy-duty things like refrigerators or construction tools while inverter generators can power up a car battery or laptop. When you’re camping if you don’t need to power anything too big then maybe an inverter generator is better suited for you.
Between the two an inverter generator is usually 10-30 dB quieter than a portable generator. This is a product of how they work and how much power they can put out. With both generator types, you will usually find that you get what you pay for. As cost goes up so does efficiency and quietness. This is because the higher end models use more expensive materials and engineering to keep them lightweight and quiet.
Among what is currently available on the market, one of the quietest generators is the Honda EU2200i. It weighs a little under 50 lbs, puts out peak power energy levels around 2kW, and can run for about 4 hours at full capacity with just a gallon of fuel. You could run just about anything from a refrigerator to a laptop off of this generator. At its loudest, the generator doesn’t exceed 59 decibels which places it closer to the noise level of a conversation than a vacuum cleaner. That amount of noise is much more bearable. The price tag is about what you might expect though, prices start around $1000 on Amazon.
You could go a little cheaper though with Yamaha’s comparable EF2000iSv2 generator. It only weighs 44 lbs and the noise level maxes out around 61 decibels. At 25% work capacity it can run for over 10 hours on 1 gallon of fuel with a running output of 1600 watts. The price tag for this generator hovers around $800 usually. There are several other relatively quiet generators on the market around this price point so you just have to do your research and see what suits your needs. As prices drop from here though the noise level on the generator will go up.
Ideally, you want to combine the best of both worlds by purchasing a quieter generator and then placing it inside of a quiet enclosure with some kind of muffler in place. When you bring all these pieces together you will be able to run the generator in most places and it will barely be noticeable.
If you plan on going camping and want to use a generator while enjoying the great outdoors then you will definitely need to make preparations to quiet the noise it makes. Most generators are as loud as a vacuum at 60-90 dB and sometimes higher. That level of noise at a campsite will scare off all the wildlife and make it very difficult to sleep. Many campsites have noise regulations too. If you haven’t experienced the subtle stress of a loud generator constantly running in the background then try running your vacuum cleaner for about an hour as you go about your day. As soon as you turn it off after that hour you’ll feel the difference.
In order to cope with the noise that generators make, you can try a few different solutions. Most of the noise a generator makes comes from the combustion in the engine that generates power. Second to that the exhaust is a source of the noise. If you manage those two things then you can manage how loud your generator is. You do this by using quiet enclosures and modifying the exhaust. It is also important to consider buying the quietest generator you can afford. When you start quiet everything else becomes easier.
Bonus tip: Check out this ultimate decibel and load testing video which compares several of the top generator brands available!